Disclosure: Due to the sensitive nature of the areas and properties that I visited I won’t be going into detail about specific locations of animals, times of activities, number of individuals or animals involved, or other information that might pose a security risk to those that work or volunteer in the area. Rangers and civilians across Africa and Asia die every day protecting our wildlife and it’s vital when talking about these situations that we remember that maintaining Operational Security helps keep those who work and operate in wildlife conservation areas safe.
Resources on Zimbabwe:
Atlas of Zimbabwe on Wikimedia.org
BBC's Zimbabwe Country Profile (2013)
Zimbabwe on CIA's The World Fact Book
Zimbabwe on Wikipedia.org
Before leaving for southern Africa I described the kinds of activities I expected to participate in as an anti-poaching volunteer. Having had previous experience with the same group, but in a different country and under different circumstances, I was provided with a broad set of expectations that I pared down to what I thought I was most likely to encounter on this volunteering adventure. My Planning & Gear List also reflected my expectations of the climate, terrain, flora and fauna, and camping conditions that I would encounter. One additional adjustment I had to make to my gear list was removing any camouflage gear from my bags because it’s illegal to wear in Zimbabwe and the clothing or gear can be confiscated by the police (who will then use it or sell it).
The duration of my trip to southern Africa was going to be about 20 hours of flight time each way, plus several hours of layovers. Then roughly five weeks in southern Africa spent volunteering and a few days sightseeing. In general I like to pack relatively light, especially when traveling to a country that might become destabilized due to changes in the political structure, but on this trip I packed for three weeks worth of travel with the hopes of being able to wash or launder my gear at least once. Because we were spending a lot of time in remote areas this meant bringing a lot more clothing and more personal supplies than I was used to when camping or hiking in the States and with access to a vehicle. It also meant preparing for situations and weather that weren’t ideal and bringing funds in the appropriate currencies to make safe travel reasonably convenient.
On this trip I did a better job preparing for the climate by bringing a cold-weather sleeping bag that was sufficient for the cool nights and chill wind that brought temperatures down to 4 Celsius (40 degrees F). The sleeping bag I took to South Africa last year was warm, but poorly suited for the near-freezing temperatures we experienced and the intense wind. I also brought more long-sleeved clothing that I could layer and take off as the mornings heated up or put on as the evenings rapidly cooled down. But I also keep long shirts and pants on throughout the day to help keep the sun off, which being so close to the equator was more intense than I had experienced even in the American southwest.
Long pants and long-sleeve shirts also helped keep the insects away. While mosquitoes were almost nonexistent due of the time of year and temperatures we did have problems with other pests that crawled up our sleeves, down our socks, and even into some of the volunteers’ water bottles. On our overnight patrols and operations which included setting up listening posts (LP) and observation posts (OP) we layered on as much clothing as we could, then threw jackets and coats on over top with hats and face masks to keep us warm while laying in the grass, sitting at the top of observation areas, or doing perimeter sweeps.
I wasn’t sure if the volunteers were going to be given proper tents, something that we had last time, thinking that we might be spending time at a barracks or similar building when we were not moving around from property to property. But we did have tents again (see main photo) and they were placed on concrete foundations and thus were quite comfortable and dry. We had the privilege of having roughly one tent for each of us, though sometimes we shared tents while on overnight duties. Overall, the privacy having our own tent afforded us, and the distance it put between me and the volunteers that snored, was priceless.
We also had the luxury of “indoor” flush toilets, as well as a reasonable amount of water which we pumped from a nearby water supply. The water was not potable, but it was sanitary enough to bathe and clean with without having to be treated with chemicals. A benefit of not having to treat the water with chlorine or iodine is that the wastewater can then be discarded without worrying about it dramatically impacting wildlife or plants in the area through pesticide or soluble inorganic matter contamination.
Knowledge & Training
Throughout our time volunteering the volunteers had access to all the knowledge and skills acquired by the rangers, conservationists, game guides, and others that we were there to help but also learn from. We got to watch and experience the way that the areas operated, received lectures and training on a variety of topics including animal tracking, property management, and field medical training which also included points on helicopter evacuation, which is one of the only viable means of transportation while in remote areas. I’ll do my best to pass along information, experience, and notes that I received through these lectures and training courses in future posts.
Because I had some previous experience and was reasonably confident in my knowledge of the properties’ layouts I also got to assist in some management duties which gave me insight into the operational concerns of the camp: the logistics of moving volunteers around, making sure that rangers were able to get to and from their assignments, and dealing with the realities of secure radio communication in less-then-desirable terrain and weather.
I also got to see how the administrators of the foundation ran the anti-poaching side of things and saw how they dealt with any difficulties that they encountered. Being able to shadow former soldiers, professional conservationists, and rangers as they went about their administrative business showed me how much time they invest in planning not just for the day’s events and drills, but also for any eventuality that they can think of, and the time involved in organizing plans that takes time away from other tasks that need to be accomplished. As with any organization there is always a balance between what can be done and what must be done, but it becomes even more apparent with an organization that has to juggle the responsibilities of keeping wildlife and people safe while also fostering a healthy relationship with the surrounding community which can be impacted just as dramatically by poaching, human-wildlife conflict, and poor economic conditions.
I noted some of the planning that goes into successfully operating an organization dedicated to wildlife protection and conservation:
- Arranging supply runs for food and essentials at regular intervals (which means not going into town in uniform/hiking attire that might tip off outsiders as to the organization’s schedule).
- Maintaining a rotation of rangers across various duties: patrolling, tracking, security, wildlife management; and also arranging for the rangers to have time off so that they can visit their families and live a reasonably normal life.
- Paying the bills. Not just for utilities, supplies, and other essentials, but also paying for equipment or salaries for the anti-poaching rangers and volunteers and also maintaining life and health insurance policies for the rangers.
- Dealing with the schedules of the property owners, management officials, local and national government officials, and generally being on our best behavior as guests in the country.
- Doing everything by the book and making sure that changes in protocol or government policy are quickly and effectively communicated to others in the organization.
- Wildlife population and habitat assessment: Determining how many animals of a particular species can survive in an area at current and future levels of forestation, types of vegetation, predation, disease, and other factors.
- Balancing the conservation resources (such as water) while simultaneously doing as much as possible to protect specific species which are resources in their own right (elephants and rhino) which might mean creating artificial watering holes for specific species to rely on during the dry season.
As volunteers we were never required to do anything that we felt unsafe or uncomfortable doing, however we all did our part to keep the camp and toilet/shower facilities clean and lend a hand to the rangers or others doing menial tasks that are required for day-to-day living in the bush. The volunteers also weren’t required to participate in any of the activities on a given day, but of course the reason we were out there was to participate, so only in rare instances did individuals skip going on a patrol or game walk.
We got to see and learn about a lot of interesting animals, their behaviors, and their roles in the environment. We had the opportunity to operate with some fascinating individuals and get up close to exotic animals, but there were a lot of menial duties that we were given both so that we received an understanding of how hard the employees of the property work and also because we were extra hands available to do such work, whereas rangers, with their unique skills and abilities, were of more use performing their specific duties. While some of the projects the volunteers helped with weren’t very exciting or related to anti-poaching, they were still tasks that were ultimately important to our cause and the groups that run the organization and property.
I had a great time volunteering in Zimbabwe and found the country to be beautiful and, during the winter at least, very hospitable. The tourist activities I participated in were without equal and I’m looking forward to going on more adventures and seeing more of what Africa has to offer in the future. I also enjoyed working alongside and volunteering for the anti-poaching organization that last year I volunteered with in South Africa. They’re great people and don’t compromise their integrity or morals to do a very difficult job.
I’ll go into more depth about some of my experiences in future posts and include some pictures to give a better idea of what the volunteer experience was like. I’ll also discuss what life is like for the various employees, rangers, and conservation experts that have dedicated their lives to these endeavors.